The Online Journal of Contour biennale

April 13 2017


By Arjuna Neuman

The notion of “bad hombres” threatening the polis echoes a much older fear, that of bad blood threatening the body. Conflations like this, of the body-natural and the body-politic, are often called on through political rhetoric to leverage questionable policies. The rhetoric works well for two reasons: firstly, the two-body analogy is ingrained in the history and language of politics—starting with the Ancient Greek word “polis,” which means body of citizens, through to  today’s “head-of-state”, Donald Trump with his  “grip” on your “heart and mind.” Secondly, we all have bodies and so the rhetoric functions primarily at an affective rather than rational level. This way, a threat to the state can be made to feel like an actual threat to the individual body: regardless of its logical reality, the bad blood is gonna get you.

Affective conflation aside, there is an important difference in the two bodies’ scale that should not be glossed over too quickly. In the original Greek, an ideal polis, which is to say a body of citizens, demarcated a given area that could be walked within one full day.11See: Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, directed by Henry Ferrini (Gloucester, MA: Ferrini Productions, 2007). A polis or political body, therefore, was entirely within a given person’s field of unassisted experience. On the other hand, Google Maps tells us it would take 912 hours or seventy-six days to walk from one blue state to the other, California to New York (not to mention how long a tour of the geo-polis might take). Or, put as a question: What body is equipped for, or is commensurate with, the scale and complexity of (global) politics today?

Obviously in a democracy like the United States there are ways to parcel and repackage what were once pedestrian-scaled, political constituencies. The success of these innovations in democracy (local, state, region, by way of the electoral college) are not my current concern, although they are certainly suspect. Rather, my point is to ask whether the interchangeability and feedback of the body-natural for the body-politic leaves us open to a type of power that is not only anachronistic (either nationalist or neoliberal, or probably both) and therefore taken for granted, invisible. But more importantly, I want to ask: How might this legacy of power lodged in a biopolitical and reciprocating metaphor be rearranged?


The Body

There are two original schools for understanding the nature of disease and therefore the nature of the body. The first, as proposed by Galen, describes illness as an internal condition, an imbalance of the body’s humors. This is the origin of the word “dis-ease.” While the second, more indebted to Paracelsus and the birth of toxicology and microbiology, considers foreign bodies as the paramount threat. What is consistent with both schools is the body’s sovereignty and this sovereignty’s sanctity—one calls for barriers the other expulsion. The kind of scaled-up politics that emerges out of these different schools can be seen reemerging today in Donald Trump’s proposed yet deeply regressive racial-moral policies—building a wall to keep foreign bodies out, while deporting the “bad hombres” or bad blood from within.

Both medical paradigms still endure today. Certainly, and simply still in the popular imagination—think of self-administered hand sanitizer and positive thinking, exogenous and endogenous respectively. Such stable definitions of the biological body, its immune system and health function, are not only essential to building trust within the medical field (after all who wants an ignorant doctor?), but also these fixed and enduring definitions are paramount to stabilizing the body-politic.

Although the type of body (with its set of pathologies and neuroses) partially depends on the predominant economic-political paradigm (and vice versa, what kind of body lends itself to certain political economies). Under neoliberalism, a technologically optimized, nomadic, and racially blind body, albeit for the elite only, is the ideal body-natural (something more trans-human—with computer/brain metaphors and neural Net-assisted thinking). This type of body helps sustain techno-globalization and to smooth over the outsourcing of racism (to the global south) by veiling the umbilical relation of racism and economics with identity politics (at home). This body is labor blind instead of color blind but liberally safe and found in many, many universities. This body is still part of the problem.

Under a neo-nationalist and seemingly regressive (although it is too early to tell) political economy emerging the world over, a more classical (read: patriarchal, homogenous, and basic) definition of the body-natural presumably helps stabilize the conservative body-politic. This type of homogenous body classically requires a sustained foreign threat, a body-other to spur domestic growth. However, the question that the world is currently facing is: How will this neo-nationalist wave merge with globalization? And what kind of post-neoliberal order with a demand for strange or regressive bodies will emerge?


The Cure

The rise of this new political economy, tentatively called neo-nationalism, should come as no surprise in the United States (after Brexit, Berlusconi, et al.), since we have been inundated by the return (domestication) or at least the intensification of racially motivated violence helmed by the state. This violence, this destruction of black and brown bodies, has largely been decriminalized—far too few murderers have been prosecuted. This gives seeming license to continue and even sets a precedent for citizens to follow the state if not in deed, at least in their vote.

This year alone over 1,000 bodies were “purged” by the United States police—this alarming statistic is a clear premonition of and precursor to the recent elections and the new administration’s future policies. Put differently, this “epidemic” of police brutality against the black and brown body should be understood as a bloodletting of the body-politic. Bloodletting is the bogus miracle cure that accompanied Galen’s biomedical theory that dis-ease is internally produced. Its official use was sustained for over 2,000 years. It is also possible that the cure predates the dis-ease—since Galen confabulated black bile to make four (symmetrical) rather than three humors. When the effect comes before the cause, the cure before the illness, then some kind of clandestine ideology or agenda should be suspected—when rendered at the level of the biological body, this fusion of politics and flesh produces legacies of biocentrism that we still embody today.

In short, bloodletting was considered a universal cure for a dis-eased body. It worked by removing stagnant which is to say bad blood from a given body. Using a lancet (also the name of the oldest British medical journal, one such discursive legacy), a surgeon would lacerate a vein so that it could “breath.” Blood or supposedly stagnant blood would be gathered in bowls, the expelled blood would weaken the whole body often causing the patient to faint—this was a sign of the cure working. Bloodletting was both preventative and auto-prescribed as well as curative and administered by surgeons—cleansing the body’s interiority in this way was both state and self-sanctioned, externalized and internalized discipline. In its most plain terms, bloodletting weakened the body by expelling bad blood.

Lancet Window, Reims Cathedral and Lancet Surgical Tool

Lancet Window, Reims Cathedral and Lancet Surgical Tool, online source: Enthusiastical

The morality of fluids, in particular the morality of blood has a long religious and royal history—not to mention a significant racist history in the United States (from blue blood to the one-drop rule). Bloodletting with a lancet that is architecturally/ergonomically derived from church windows marks a point where religious morality as a sociopolitical and epistemological doctrine merges and overlaps with a more secular or scientific order. Bloodletting’s popularity peaked in the nineteenth century just before industrialization and the onset of rapid modernization and globalization. Perhaps this meeting point of moral health and biomedical health goes a long way to explain bloodletting’s resilience and status as a universal cure—despite its bogus curative effects. Or perhaps it also signals the slowness and entangled nature of secularization when it comes to the intimate body (read: ontological renovation does not happen overnight). The question then, is: What does its reappearance in this contemporary moment tell us about the present and near future?

Before answering this question—and just to clarify the connection of racially motivated killing to an anachronistic biomedical cure—let us not forget the obscenely abundant circulation of the image and video of Michael Brown dead in public. This should serve as a visual, which is to say pornographic example of this wave of body-politic bloodletting—that feeds back into a deeply regressive binary moralism of the body. Thus resetting us back to a pre-globalization, nineteenth-century body and cure, albeit through symbolic and mediated channels. Remembering that bloodletting is a bogus biomedical procedure designed to weaken the body by expelling its bad fluids (in this case, think of Officer Wilson’s moralistic description of Brown as a “demon”). Not only does it weaken the body (both natural and political), but it simultaneously substantiates the sovereignty and sanctity of the body as something to be morally restored (made great again), while also substantiating the authority of the surgeon general or police officer, that arm of the state seemingly above the law.

Two further points about Brown are important to note: on a visual level the pool of blood surrounding the lifeless body, its color is black as if stagnant (in reality the iPhone camera is not great), and, second, the sheer pornographic reception of this image—pornographic in the sense that it produces (along with all the other gruesome images of dead black bodies) a certain pleasure, guilty or not, and with it a release. Not a full-blown sexual release like we find in Marquis de Sade’s bloodletting scenes in Justine—but a certain sadistic and viral catharsis, what we might call emotional or symbolic bloodletting, but still on the same spectrum as real bloodletting. The nature of this release is trans- or pre-political and unconscious. Obviously what kind of negative or positive affects are attached differ, from moral outrage, to guilt, to perverse or dark pleasure, even to some (like the state), “justice”—what is important is the collective almost ubiquitous transference of this singular bloodletting event, something akin to a gruesome, embodied pop song. And then its ongoingness, now 1,001 hits (all of which ironically profit Facebook, Google and YouTube).


The Diagnosis

What this semiotic and unconscious return of bloodletting signifies perhaps more than a Lacanian joissance is a collective desire for understanding the complexity of the world more generally (from symptome to structure, albeit naïvely). In this sense, the blood, wanting to see and let blood, marks an ignorant yet embodied attempt to understand global circulation more generally: blood as the part of us that is both visible and importantly, circulatory. Therefore blood becomes an embodied, internal analogy for global trade—especially if following the ancient interchangeable logic of the two bodies.

We might think of these killings then, as an attempt at developing a bloody, homemade grammar of the global, or at least an attempt to make legible something as complex as the world today. This grammar leads right back to the slave as precedent who bears the inscription of the first economy of planetary displacement all over her body. And forward to something akin to medical pop-positivism: “let’s open it up to see how it works.”

It is important to remember that the circulation of black bodies was the starting point for, and precedent to, today’s global capitalism. Racism as an “accidental” by-product of modernization, or much more specifically, racism is the “necessary” cultural component of this ongoing neocolonial and global economic reformation. This historical yet continuous bio-cultural role of racism bolsters today’s provincial, perennial, and pragmatic desire for opening up the black body. A situation in which cause and symptom are confused within a frustrated and perverse attempt to intuit the wider world. Frustrated because of the impossibility of relating abstract globalization to a much more tangible and severely felt inequality. This gap of understanding and its attendant feelings produce a real sense of stagnant helplessness. This in turn encourages childlike and retrograde responses: think of all the iPhone smashing videos (the trending ur-commodity of globality), think of Trump on the same spectrum—with his clowny resurrections of old-fashioned fascist familiarity, blood, and nation. Think of YouTube bloodletting / racial murdering and the glee of such violence being viewed again and again on the same spectrum or screen. Think of the two-body analogy and the origin of politics, and then, taking matters violently into your own hands, think of following the dream of creating a healthy body-geo-politic through the body-natural and its circulatory system of blood, now all over the pavement.

Bloodletting Tool, Mesoamerica, © SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Bloodletting Tool, Mesoamerica, © SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology


Foreign Agents

The problem/pathology of this incommensurate body is derived historically. Where for the most part our biological definitions of the body (at least in the popular imagination) have been scaled to political formations that are local, national, or regional at most, and the individual at the least. Although this is starting to change, especially if we follow the other predominant and more contemporary school of disease—that of foreign agents threatening the health of the body from without (an ontology that arose with the proliferation of syphilis). The legacy of this body definition can perhaps be most clearly seen in the ban today in the United States on the donation of blood by homosexual and bisexual males. If you are a cis man or a trans woman who has sex with cis men or trans women then you cannot donate blood today. This marks the legacy of HIV, its phobia in the popular imagination as muddled with homophobia—HIV is still the “gay disease.”

This biomedical or biocentrist instance of body policing is mirrored at the national border. If you were diagnosed as HIV positive, then up until 2010 you were not eligible for a green card to enter the United States. Autoimmune deficiency was removed from the list of Communicable Diseases of Public Health Significance,22Section 212(a)(1)(A)(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act bars the admission to the United States of any foreign national who has been diagnosed with certain specific illnesses.which currently include syphilis,33Syphilis was perhaps the first disease of globalization, with it an embedded kind of biomedical racism. Historically, syphilis has been called the “Polish disease” by the Germans, the “French disease” by the English, the “Portuguese disease” by the Spanish, and so on. While leprosy was associated with Jews. The legacy of this biomedical racism continues today at the United States border. gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and Hansen’s disease. At the inter-body level of blood transfusion and the inter-border level of immigration, the state intervenes. Both together reveal the continued entanglement of the body-natural with the body-politic, both reveal the way the body-natural is configured and defined in alignment with body-politic notions of borders and vice versa. This means that Trump’s wall is also on the same spectrum as hand sanitizer’s ubiquity in say Californian public high schools—both set out to police/cleanse the border of the body and nation, and fight against bacteria and illegal immigrants. Both reveal a definition of the body and nation as sovereign, skin and border something to be protected, sanitized, policed, and controlled.


The Bacterial Body

 We can expect the continued return of the two-body analogy as the world regresses further toward nationalism and brutal segregation. The body with its skin border is something we can all relate to, and therefore in any populist political movement the body with its affective potential and affecting rhetoric will be called on to bolster support for increasingly retrograde policies. This is what the rise of bloodletting as racial violence warns.

However, despite what seems like a grim horizon, there are at least two reasons to be optimistic about this return. Not necessarily about the return of nationalism or its violence, but what the return of the double-body analogy opens up for political maneuvering and cultural resistance. Put differently, the body is a much more tangible and universal ground for struggle than say previous neoliberal and immaterial sites like the network. The revival of the double body opens a forked pathway to both the general public and to much larger, systemic frameworks. In short, rearrange the body and you can rearrange the system—or more proudly, “my body, my choice.” The second reason to be optimistic is that retrograde definitions of the body, and the regressive policies they engender, can be countered quite easily with scientific facts. Especially if attention is paid to how these facts reach and ultimately culture the popular and political imagination.

Bacteria is, or will become, a key protagonist in this struggle over body definitions and their imaginary. In part because of a crisis of antibiotics, which are now failing, and because of health crazes like expensive fecal transplants: bacteria as both good and bad (complicating morality), and as inside us and outside us (complicating limits and previous classical definitions). What recent science is telling us is that the body is not as sovereign as we thought it was—in fact, in terms of cells, we have ten foreign bacterial cells for every singular cell of our own (not to mention foreign DNA). This means we are, or our body is, more foreign than native, more planetary than nationalist.

Going against the grain of popular belief, bacteria is also responsible for human subjectivity. Not all of it, but for some desires and cravings, as well as empathy, depression, mood, and clarity of thought—these connections have been proven so far. Bacteria gets what it needs by producing proteins that mimic the human hormones that signal, for example, when we are hungry (we know every revolution starts with hunger, or should we say, bacteria).

To illustrate just how strange this understanding of subjectivity can be in terms of matter, consider its temporality. After we die our bacteria continues to live (in the thanatomicrobiome), which also means those same cravings for cheese or justice we had while alive, continue well after our death. The implications of this fact not only challenge age-old notions of the unconscious, they also give rise to the possibility of a radically new kind of body. A body, or at least a subjectivity that is hardly human at all.

Going further still, bacteria also seeds rainclouds—as an aerosol once submerged in a cloud, it allows the latent moisture to gather around it before falling back to earth (perhaps this is an analogous or at least poetic description for how bacterial-human emotion forms). We know that the weather is not subject to national borders, and in fact one of the most difficult aspects of climate management comes from national corruption and the impossibility of global regulation. The climate we also know is not subject to human time—we might ask, how old is the wind?

Once bacteria is recognized as a double agent of rain and human desire, we can establish a meshold and living link between the matter of our subjectivity (our body) and the weather (the planet). Such a rearrangement in terms of geographic and temporal scales, or what I am calling cloud-subjectivity, not only challenges anachronistic definitions of the human body, its local sovereignty, and its analogical role in promoting nationalist, racist, misogynist, and neocolonial policies, but it also reveals how our subjectivity, desires, and (now hyper-) empathy could become timeless in their climatic circumnavigations of the planet.

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By Arjuna Neuman